Gov. Herbert comes out against medical marijuana initiative, warning it would ‘open the door to recreational use’

FILE - In this Sept. 7, 2017, file photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks at a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Herbert on Tuesday, March 20, 2018 signed a bill allowing women to get birth control directly from a pharmacist rather than visiting a doctor each time they want to obtain or renew a prescription for birth control. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Gov. Gary Herbert came out against a ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana for a wide range of patients, saying in a statement Thursday the initiative was too broad and would open the door to recreational use.

He said Utah lawmakers got it right when they passed HB195 and HB197, which he signed, that will allow physicians to recommend marijuana for people who have an estimated six months or less left to live. The state would also contract with a grower and control dispensing of marijuana under rules the Department of Agriculture and Food will begin working on next month.

The ballot initiative would grant access to marijuana to a far longer list of patients. It would also allow for private growing and dispensing, similar to the framework in many of the 29 other states that allow the federally illegal plant for medicinal use.

Backers say the ballot initiative has nearly enough signatures to qualify for the Nov. 6 election.

Herbert said earlier this year that he thought Utahns would legalize medical marijuana. His spokeswoman later clarified that he was talking generally about medical marijuana and not the current ballot-initiative drive.

“We need to be cautious as we test and introduce cannabis into our formulary,” Herbert said in the statement. “I believe the consequences of this initiative, even if they are unintended, will do more harm than good.”

Herbert said his administration has worked with lawmakers for years on the issue, and he indicated he signed the bills despite wanting more study.

“I support efforts to allow medical researchers to better understand the medical properties of cannabis,” he said. “That, in turn, will allow physicians and pharmacists to prescribe and dispense cannabis as a controlled substance in accordance to the highest standards of medical science.”

Lawmakers who supported the bills — which narrowly passed the House before handily clearing the Senate — said the state should slowly wade into legalizing any form of the plant, which people have begun using for its purported medical benefits. HB197, which sets up the state-run growing and dispensing process, failed on its first vote on the House floor before passing.

Legislators originally proposed allowing marijuana use for people with a terminal illness but narrowed that to only patients with six months or less left to live. Doctors who recommend the cannabis plant to their patients wouldn’t be penalized if the patients live longer than six months.

The ballot campaign assured throughout the legislative session that it would keep pushing for a vote of the people, and the initiative has continued polling well. Three of four registered voters support it, according to recent polls by The Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Members of the initiative campaign said the governor’s comments were expected after years of opposition from Utah lawmakers.

“While we appreciate the governor weighing in on medical cannabis, his comments are another example of what Utahns have grown tired of: politicians standing between patients and their physicians,” DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition, wrote in a statement.

“Saying the most conservatively drafted initiative in the country would ‘potentially’ open the door for recreational use is a scare tactic that has no basis in truth,” Schanz wrote.

Under Utah’s law for residents to get issues on the ballot, campaigns need to get signatures from 10 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in 26 of Utah’s 29 state Senate districts in the last presidential election. The campaign has enough certified signatures in 23 of them and plans to cross the finish line before the April 16 deadline, according to campaign organizers.

“The campaign is extremely certain it will have signatures in every district necessary,” said Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute, which supports the initiative.

As for the governor’s opposition, Boyack wrote in a statement it was “sad the governor and so many legislators remain content with criminalizing people who merely seek good health.”

Eight states, including neighboring Colorado and Nevada, have legalized marijuana for adults to use recreationally.